tv Vietnam War - 50 Years Later with Sen. John Mc Cain CSPAN December 25, 2017 9:35am-10:01am EST
a lake and was captured, beaten and held in filthy condition with poor medical care. two of the more than five years he was held as a p.o.w. were spent in solitaire confinement. on this 50th anniversary, senator mccain talks with american history tv about those events and he reflects on the war's legacy and impact on america. senator mccain, when you look back 50 years ago when your plane went down there in hanoi and through the last 50 years, what today, in your opinion, are the legacies of vietnam, good and bad? >> the legacies of vietnam is before we get into a conflict, we'd better have a strategy and a capability to win. and this is one of these gradual, drip, drip, drip involvements, started out with a thing called the gulf of tonkin
revolution and still not clear today, a confrontation between vietnamese ships and american ships which then led to a resolution ran through by lyndon johnson to a complete lack of focus and strategy on how to bring it to a close. and i'm very sympathetic because the one thing that overrode most of lyndon johnson's thinking appropriately was chin fa, that we certainly didn't want to have a confrontation athat would lea to a real conflict there. so it cautioned all of our actions so that it was a very gradual escalation which then not only didn't harm the enemy but strengthened their resolve and that led, of course, to all
kinds of implications and repercussions. the new age, the use of drugs, demonstrations right out here on this mall there was a million people or how ever many it was that it really split our society in a way that we sometimes forget. mass arrests, demonstrations, chicago that all of us can look back and see on c-span but it was a tumultuous time and most of it was bred by the conflict. in one aspect of the conflict, by the way, that i will never, ever countenance is that we drafted the lowest income level of america and the highest income level, found a doctor that would say they had a bone spur. that is wrong. that is wrong. if we're going to ask every american to serve, every american should serve.
and later in the war, we went to the lottery system, which was b -- but for years and years, it was the lowest income americans, which was a lot of minorities, were forced to go and fight. and that -- to me, that's a black mark on the history of this country, asking those with the lowest income level to do the fighting for us while the wealthyist stayed home. >> when you were in your -- i believe a-4, taking off from the carrier, how apprehensive were you when you were flying into a place like northern vietnam that you'd get shot down? >> well, i was on board the "uss forestal" where we had a horrific fire and my plane was hit by a missile and then i was flying off the "ariskany" when i was shot down. what was i thinking?
i was a young fighter pilot. >> hold were -- how old were you? >> 28. i wanted to go against the enemy and it wasn't so much that they were the enemy, that's what i was trained to do all those years and i wanted to do it. it wasn't as if i was on -- i don't want to have to fly this combat mission. it was that, i'm ready to go and my contemporaries and my squad mates were the same way and we took a lot of losses. but one of the great things about being a fighter pilot, you're sure that everybody else is going to get shot down but not you. >> and when that happened, how many vietnamese were around you in the water in that lake? >> well, when i first went in, it's a long story, but i was barely able to get back to the surface but then a bunch of them
jumped in and there's a picture, which i'm sure you'll show, of them pulling me out of the lake. you can see my arm is broken and up high and then, of course, once they pulled me out, they weren't very happy to see me. >> why not? >> because i just finished bombing the place. and so we got pretty rough. broke my shoulder and hurt my knee again and -- but, look, i don't blame them. we're in a war. i didn't like it, but at the same time, when krour you're in and captured by the enemy, you can't expect, you know, to have tea. and so they pulled me out of the -- long story short, pulled me out of the lake, put me -- beat me up a little -- or a lot, and then went to the now famous
hanoi hilton, prison, which was just a short drive away. five-minute drive away. and then it's a very long story about how they found out who my father was and they decided to give me treatment and two wonderful americans, they moved me into -- finally, who thought that they moved me in to die, and they took care of me, nursed me back to health and then after they saw me in better health, they put me into solitary confinement. look, i don't hold a grudge against the north vietnamese. i don't like them. there's some that i would never want to see again, but at the same time, i was part of a conflict, okay? and i thought they were some of the meanest people i ever met in my life and i never want to see again but there were several that were good people and that
were kind to me. so that's why it was much easier for me to support, along with president clinton and others, the normalization of relations with our two countries to heal the wounds of war. >> when you got back from over there, how much did you and your dad talk about it? >> a lot. a lot. it was very hard on my dad, particularly since i knew what was happening to me and he didn't. and so everybody that would come to hawaii and his command would want to talk about me and they did the right thing, they said, please just don't talk about evan mccain's son and then that takes up the whole conversation. but every christmas for four years, he would fly all the way up to the dmz, the dividing line between north and south vietnam and have christmas dinner with the marines and then, of
course -- and remember, that these marines and soldiers, they were draftees. they weren't there because they volunteered and they are mainly 18, 19-year-old kids. it's just -- i've seen those pictures. they are just beautiful. and he would come back very happy and restored from that experience. and so it was very -- he was very cognizant of the fact that the north vietnamese were -- valued my presence. and as you know, so many stories we could tell, but they offered me a chance to be released but our code of conduct says, sick and injured and by order of capture and i knew why they were offering me release. if my name had been smith, it wouldn't have been -- but saying no was -- it wasn't the easiest
thing to say. and i don't mean to bounce around but three years afterwards, after i had refused on christmas eve, cold christmas eve in hanoi, i was in solitaire confinement. every cell had a loud speaker in it and they were playing christmas use i can i still remember one of the songs was "i'll be home for christmas" sung by dinah shore. that was a bit nostalgic. anyway, the same guy who was the leader of all of the camps came into my cell and to make a very long story short, he told me about an island that ho chi minh used to love to go to which many years later i demanded a visit to and went to, but most importantly, at the end of the evening -- it was purely social. it's the only time it's ever
done. and he was giving me cigarettes and he was telling me about ho chi minh's island and how his father had been part of it and to make a long story short he said, there's an island that ho chi minh uses to relax, refresh and it's out in the tonkin gulf and he said my father has gone out there with ho chi minh but nobody knows about it. i said, really? years later, normalization of relations, the foreign minister of vietnam comes to washington. i had him to lunch in the senate dining room and he said, whatever you want, whatever you want, we will do, because you're our friend. and i said, okay, i want to go to ho chi minh's island. and he said, how do you know about ho chi minh's island? nobody knows about ho chi minh's island. i said, i know about ho chi minh's island. so about six months later, mark and cindy and i get on a boat and spent the night looking at
the sunset from the balcony of ho chi minh's bedroom. amazing story. >> how big of an island was it, or is it? >> not real big but not small. in other words, i'd say so that you could probably walk from end to end of it in a half hour. you know, it was -- so anyway, we spent the night there and so as i say, he came to washington and he has since passed away. he was the interpreter for ping -- >> van dong? >> no. no. >> in paris or -- >> the paris peace talks. i have on my wall in my office a
cable that was sent by ab abel harriman back to the state department, classified. and he says on it at the tea, lay duck to, the negotiator, he said that the vietnamese had intended to release the admiral mccain's son but he had refused. and that's the -- that was part of the documents that we declassified because for a while there everybody was believing that we had left americans behind. so such long stories but senator mitchell and senator dole set up this select committee headed by me and john kerry and part of the deal was that the conspiracy theory people said there's all
these secret documents that are out there that will prove that we left americans behind. so part of the -- of our report is, we said that everyone -- everything has to be declassified that has anything to do with pow. one of the documents that came out was the one that i mentioned to you. it was from avril harriman in paris back to the state department. and that was really remarkable when it came -- thousands of documents came out. and that one was more than interesting. >> let me ask you about -- we're going through a period -- >> sorry for the long answers. >> it's fine. we're going through a period where we see a lot of hate speech. >> yeah. >> now, i want to ask you -- this may be sensitive, but i want to ask you, you came out of the vietnam war and you say, i'm not bitter, i didn't have nightmares. i got over it.
relate that to what our president said about you. >> well -- >> when he said, you are no war hero, what did that feel like? and here's a guy who had five deferments and all of that. how do you process that? >> i think you just ignore it. i really do. i watch what the president does, not what he says. i think the important thing about that statement, though, was not about me. i went out not that longing a after he said that because occasionally people come to us, their relative served in a war and didn't get the medals that they earned and we do the research and -- anyway, 92-year-old man from scottsdale, arizona, a prisoner of war in germany, weighed 110 pounds when he was finally -- when the germans finally were -- stopped
fighting. and so we gave him his medals. and it was wonderful. at a retirement home. all of them were it was very moving. i was talking to him before. he said, senator mccain, why is it that donald trump doesn't like me. i said, sir, he does, and so do all americans. it wasn't what he said about me, because i'm in the arena. but what he said, like that 92-year-old man who came out of t there weighing 110 pounds. that's what i take exception to. >> how much came out of a period of our existence, 50 years ago today, you were shot down, where the government wasn't telling us the truth. >> the government wasn't telling us the truth.
the whole mcnamara apparatus. they had this idea about, quote, unquote, graduated escalation. if we just stepped up the bombing a little more, it would drive them to the negotiating table and we would come to a peaceful end. what actually was happening was that it was pumping up the moral of the north vietnamese because they thought they were peegt be us. look, we were able to fight back from the aggressors. so the whole concept was fatally flawed. and to prove that point was when the talks in paris had prone down. so finally richard nixon said, okay, do in and wipe them out. we went in with b-52s and other aircraft and just took out all existence. guess what, they agreed to negotiate.
so, the problem i think had a lot to do with a belief that somehow you can convince the enemy to compromise when the enemy does not think they are being beaten. and of course the tett offensive, and there's so much we could talk about, but so much moral pooe aal boost. the chinese and russians were giving them everything they wanted. still the most heavily defended place in the history of the world was hanoi with the russian surface-to-air missiles. most people aren't going to believe this, but a russian ship would show up in hi fong harbor, missiles loaded into a vehicle, taken up and put in place while we watched it. we watched it. then those missiles were fired
at american aircraft. it's ridiculous. the first i had in combat had been bombed 25 times. it was rubble. so i went in and bombed rubble again. not far away from it was a bridge not on the approved list. that's not the way to fight a war. >> i was watching tape of north vietnamese former head of the prison who said you aren't tortured. >> no. i was treated like a king. the feather bed had some lumps in it. >> what about the difference between you weren't tortured and we have said we don't tortured. why is it so hard for governments to not tell the truth. >> a classic communist -- what do you think they would say,
yes, we beat him up. we broke him up either. >> we don't do it either. we don't tell the truth. >> no, that's one of the problems i've had with our detainees, particularly in the use of waterboarding. that makes us really -- that's one of the most embarrassing chapters in my view of american history is the way we treat it. there is a story that ksm, khalid shaikh mohammed was being waterboarded and they sent a message back to cia saying we can't get anything out of them. the answer was, waterboard him some more. waterboarding was deemed a war crime. japanese officers were shot and executed because they waterboarded people. it was clearly a war crime. by the way, the cia has gotten away with it. they have destroyed the film. they have destroyed a lot of
information. it will be a black mark on the history of this country that we did that. frankly i'll never forgive the cia for what they did. >> back to -- comparison on something. we know a lot about your torture. >> yeah. >> what has been harder for you, living through the torture or living through the cancer? >> well, i think, you know, living through cancer is a challenge that i have. living through torture, you never know what's going to happen the next morning. whether they are going to come around and open your cell door and say, come on out. so at least with this fight that i'm in, i know the enemy and i know what we have to do and we take the consequences. let me also say, brian, i have had -- we're talking about 50 years.
i am the most fortunate person of all the thousands you have interviewed that you will ever know. i have had the best and full life that anybody could possibly have. so i look at this challenge with joy, with happiness, and with gratitude, gratitude that i have had the opportunity to serve this country a little bit. >> have you noticed any change in the way people are approaching you since you've dealt with this latest -- >> yeah, it's been more sympathetic. i'm sure some of them are glad i'm going. no, i've been greeted with -- look, people have told me when i gave the speech the other night and 100 senators were in their seats, that's the first time that's ever happened. so there has been an incredible outpouring of friendship. unbelievable.
moves me to tears. >> what is your treatment now? >> i receive radiation and chemo. i've had it done twice. and now i'm waiting for an mri. i want to tell you nobody expected me to have the energy level. i don't have any problem sleeping. i don't have any problem eating. i am exercising all the time. i'm in fine shape. so let's see what happens. i've fooled them before. >> one last question about the vietnam legacy thing. >> yeah. >> what was the impact on the vietnam war on our military up to this time? >> the impact on our military of the vietnam war was a devastating blow. not a fatal blow but devastating blow. after the war was over, the chief of staff of the united states army came to the armed
services committee and said, senators, you have a hollow army, because the military was eroded because of drugs, because of anti-war, because of the inequities of the draft. we were in bad shape. fortunately, then, if i may be a bit parochial, ronald reagan came along with a recommitment to build our military and we did. it's good now. we're in a lot of problems right now. but the fact is it's not the moral issue. listen, we had marine company officers that were discharging half their company because they weren't performing. we gave them the authority, just throw them out if they are not any good. there was a famous marine
general who said -- the media guy came up to them and said you have all these guys -- you're throwing all these guys out of the marine corps, who is going to be left. see that guy over there. he's my driver. if he and i are the only two left in the marine corps, if that's what it takes, i'm going to fix the marinecorps. so it was a very big problem, challenge, to rebuild our military after what happened after the vietnam conflict. >> senator mccain, thank you for your time. >> tweet as at c-span history. an issue that resounds today. the question is about how many people were fathered by gis, u.s. gis in vietnam, how were they treated 45 years after the u.s. departure. >> you could be featured during our next live program. join the conversation on
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